Stronach reaffirms Preakness pledge

Horse racing

October 26, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

Frank Stronach's voice thundered through the $4 million vocational training center he opened yesterday morning on Park Heights Avenue, just down the street from Pimlico Race Course.

"The Preakness will always be in Baltimore," said Stronach, the Austrian-born, gray-haired founder and chairman of Magna, the Canadian-based company that owns Laurel Park and Pimlico.

Could his definition of Baltimore include Laurel?

"No. What I mean is the Preakness will remain right here, on the hilltop," he said, using Pimlico's nickname.

He has made that pledge repeatedly since Magna bought the tracks in 2002; his "Preakness is staying" speech has become a staple of the race's nationally televised trophy presentation.

FOR THE RECORD - A photograph in Wednesday's sports section of Magna founder Frank Stronach, Maryland Jockey Club President Joseph A. De Francis and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was from the 2003 Preakness, not a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday. The Sun regrets the error.

But with the state legislature's never-ending slots standoff raising legitimate concerns about the future of the Maryland thoroughbred industry, I went to the ribbon-cutting of the Magna Baltimore Technical Training Center yesterday to see if Stronach was starting to waffle on his pledge.

Nope. As he sees it, the industry's struggles and the future of the Preakness are separate.

"I made a promise [to keep the Preakness here] when we bought the tracks. No one can say I broke a promise," he said.

He paused.

"We might run a very short [Pimlico] meeting, though," he added.

And there we go, into the morass.

Magna wants to hold just 26 racing days at Pimlico in 2006, as opposed to 60 this year (and 103 at Laurel, as opposed to 140 this year), operating on the relatively conventional theory that less racing means higher purses and better fields.

But local horsemen are steamed, the Maryland Racing Commission is balking and Magna's standing in the state seems that much more tenuous.

"Frank said to me as well [yesterday] that the Preakness is staying in Baltimore, which is nice to hear," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who joined Stronach at the ribbon-cutting. "But cutting racing days like that isn't going to make people happy. Racing at Pimlico means jobs to people in this [Park Heights] community. They want to see Pimlico flourishing again, not reduced to essentially one day of racing."

Stronach was in town to celebrate the amazing transformation of the windowless former Park Heights Elementary School building into a state-of-the-art technical school that will point thousands to careers in manufacturing. Stronach said he came up with the idea after touring the downtrodden neighborhood around Pimlico after buying the track.

"I just kept saying, `How did it come to this?'" he said. "And then it was, `What can be done?'"

There are obvious correlations to the racing industry. With slots clanging at tracks in Delaware and West Virginia and coming soon to Pennsylvania, horsemen are fleeing Maryland and the racing product is struggling.

There's no need to ask Stronach's first question (how did it come to this?), but the second (what can be done?) is the heart of the matter.

Stronach said he planned to meet yesterday with Alan Foreman, lawyer for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman's Association, and hopefully negotiate an acceptable plan for 2006 within two or three weeks.

"The horsemen and track owners have got to get together. You can't have one without the other," he said. "I'm a horse owner myself [having won the 2000 Preakness with Red Bullet]. We have to find a way to get everyone into the same boat."

It's easy to scoff at his chances, given how entrenched everyone seems to be on all sides of this issue, but after watching his vision for a life-changing school in a tough community come to life, perhaps he shouldn't be underestimated.

He certainly makes sense on slots, which he disparages on one hand, pure horseman that he is, yet also concedes are necessary to compete.

"It's just not a level playing field [for Maryland]," he said. "But slots are not the final answer. They are like an injection you take when you are ill so you may have a revival of health. You must take it to get well. But in the end, you must be able to stand by yourself.

"In the end, racing must be able to stand alone."

The departure of the Preakness has long been viewed as the worst-case scenario, a once-unthinkable endgame now seemingly in play. It was a talking point throughout the week of the 2005 race and promises to flare up again next spring if the legislature again fails to agree on a slots deal.

Stronach keeps insisting it will never come to that, repeating himself yet again yesterday.

The people of Park Heights will vouch for his word, as well they should.

But the state's skittish racing community is going to be a lot harder to convince.

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